One of the requirements for a bird to fly is a structure that combines strength with light weight.
Birds have many physical features besides their wings that enable them to fly. They need lightweight, streamlined, rigid structures for flight. Bird bones are basically hollow, thin, and filled with air sacs and tiny cross pieces to make their bones stronger. The hollow design of a bird’s bones makes their bodies light enough to fly.
Nature fits form to function. For birds, the bones, wings, muscles, and skeleton are the forms that support the function of a bird’s flight. If nature designed for control instead of self-organization, birds wouldn’t have lightweight and smooth feathers to reduce weight and drag or hollow bones to that provide just enough support and structure to enable flight.
Why Controlled Organization Does Not Apply to Nature
Nature’s lesson for organizational leaders is embedded in this question: What is the least amount of structure needed to achieve the highest possible organizational results? Human organizations often start with the assumption that people need direction to be effective.
This causes our organizations to create structures, procedures, and processes that are designed to control employees and ensure accountability. The unintended consequences of these choices are increased structures. Layers of structures and processes consume organizational resources and that weighs the organization down.
These bureaucratic structures are designed to control organizational dynamics and individual behaviors. They are motivated by the elimination of risk, the fear of deviating from some ideal standard, or the desire for more staff accountability. They also make an organization more rigid and less adaptive. In a time when the external environment is very dynamic, it makes an organization less innovative and adaptive.
Earl K. Bakken, the founder of Medtronic, once told me that he chained the policy and procedure manual of Medtronic to his ankle and dragged it across the stage as he prepared to speak to leaders in the organization. His point was that Medtronic couldn’t be adaptive and innovative if they were dragging a 12-inch policy manual around.
While this image is fun to contemplate, it is also – unfortunately –accurate today. One of the endemic patterns of organizations is the increasing layers of bureaucracy.
Organizational Tomato Cages
Nature uses the least amount of structure to achieve its purpose. What would our organizations look like if we applied this lesson to our organizations? I think tomato cages might give us some hints.
A tomato cage is a 3 to 4-foot wire cage that is placed around young tomato plants. This simple structure provides support for the growing tomato. The cage is open and allows for resources like rain and sunlight in to nourish the plant.
A tomato cage is not a silo! It is a supportive, open structure that provides just enough structure to help the tomato remain upright and make their harvest accessible to the gardener.
If we used a tomato cage design as a model for our organization, any structure, process, or policy would have to meet the following criteria before it was put in place:
- Is the policy, structure, or process needed?
- Is it designed to match the need for support or alignment?
- Is it the smallest intervention needed to achieve the highest results?
- Does it unleash self-organization, or does it control and slow down the employees’ ability to innovate and adapt?
- If it seems heavy-handed or will slow down the organization’s ability to adapt quickly, are there unexamined emotions or intentions that need to be surfaced before a decision is made?
Usually, organizations develop policies, structures, or processes to eliminate risk or hold people accountable. Risks can only be removed if you control all variables, including the external environment. The rationale of eliminating risk for more control in organizational processes or structures needs to be examined and articulated so it can be seen as flawed, to begin with. As a result, we work against our organization’s interest.
To make this shift toward using structures, procedures, or policies to facilitate organization instead of using them to control, organizational leaders need to be conscious enough to recognize when traditional defaults are shaping decisions. A mindful leader will help their team reflect on the purpose that structures, processes, or policies serve and evaluate them based on strengthening the organizations’ agility and fitting form to function.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for purchase September 4, 2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net